International jazz singer Deborah Brown has a résumé that spans the globe. She has shared both stage and studio with the likes of Slide Hampton, Clark Terry and Cedar Walton, and has lived and toured throughout the U.S., Europe and Asia. Brown returns to the Northwest as a featured performer with the Spokane Jazz Orchestra’s “Swing Street” concert on Saturday. In this interview, Brown talks about her experiences from Kansas City to Holland and back, and jazz as a landscape for the mind.
IJ: You grew up listening to a lot of bebop jazz but you don’t really have a lot of early exposure to jazz singers?
DB: My dad listened to jazz on the weekend. That’s all I heard when I was growing up. That’s really the reason I don’t have a jazz vocalist background. That developed later through the years.
IJ: When did you catch the singing bug?
DB: I listened to the classic singers, Ella and Nancy Wilson. That’s the thing about being from Kansas City, Mo. There is a lot of jazz there. I learned how to sing blues and jazz from the musicians. I’ve always been singing, but professionally I started after my first couple of years of college. I got a professional singing job in an amusement park. It was for fun. At the university I got interested in writing out jazz music but once I started working on road I never got time to finish school.
IJ: Once you hit the road you never looked back?
DB: I never looked back. All of my education was really with real musicians who taught me how to interpret music and read music. I learned how to read, first from my mom, who was a piano player, and then through the musicians on the road.
IJ: And you eventually moved to Europe?
DB: That’s what happens on the road. I started meeting people. And you can meet everyone in Europe.
IJ: Why did you come back?
DB: I came back because I was living in Holland but I couldn’t get the language. It has to be one of the most difficult languages. And I wanted to be in the States. It was good to develop my career further here. I’m working on the East Coast and in the Midwest and in L.A. And I’m still taking minitrips to Europe and the Far East and Russia because honestly, that’s where jazz lives. Jazz really lives in Europe.
IJ: Why do you say that?
DB: Because jazz music represents a freedom that is different. In America it doesn’t represent freedom to us. They know all of the jazz history. They want to hear some of the greats and they have a lot of young people making their own original music based on tradition. We haven’t had a war here since jazz. Jazz music has never been forbidden here so we take it for granted.
IJ: Can you say more about the geography of jazz? Is there a sort of mental landscape that jazz brings with it to different places? Can you hear Kansas City in Europe?
DB: There is a certain style of jazz in Kansas City, and in New Orleans and Chicago … New York is more hard hitting. Kansas City is more experimental with the timing. There is a certain lilt to how we improvise. In Europe you can let your imagination go because with the Europeans you have a confidence because they listen to so much jazz. With the American audience they are still trying to figure out what scatting is because, let’s face it, how long has it been since Ella has been on television?
IJ: What are your next projects?
DB: I’m going to Holland for my next project. That’s still in its infancy. I have a festival back in Kansas City. I’ll be in Seattle. And then I’ll finish out the winter schedule in Siberia. I know it sounds strange, but it’s a fascinating place. I’m looking forward to doing more concerts in Europe.
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